Q: My daughter turned 3 in June. She began talking at 9 months and was speaking in clear sentences by 16 months. By the end of the summer, she knew her alphabet, could read simple words and do simple addition and subtraction.
Her pediatrician and several friends have commented on how bright she is. I have done a lot of reading on child development and gifted children and I believe she could easily be considered gifted.
I have tried to provide a stimulating environment at home, with plenty of "read-aloud" time and answers to her ever-present questions. She has just started attending a church-affiliated preschool that stresses creative play and socialization within a caring environment. Now I'm wondering what her special educational needs will be. Does a gifted child need more at this age?
There are schools in the area stressing early academics, which I'm not sure I want, and there's also a school exclusively for gifted children. Are these schools a good idea?
The county school system doesn't offer a gifted program until third grade. I hate the thought of my child attending kindergarten or first grade and being introduced to the alphabet when she'll be reading by then.
A: Yes, a gifted child does need extra stimulation -- as do all children. But a word of caution.
If preschool children learn most of their reading, writing and math practically on their own, that's fine, but if they learn these skills to oblige their parents -- and before they're quite ready for it -- they will pay a price.
Consider the first grade teacher who recently wrote to this column about the many children who are now being pushed too fast: "I am amazed at the number of children entering first grade who are really turned off to reading. This is a change I have seen only in the past five years."
Pencil-and-paper skills can be terribly frustrating for any preschooler, including a gifted one. The smartest children lose their self-confidence if they try repeatedly to do some- thing -- mental or physical -- that is too hard for them.
Let's dissect the education that's available.
Your smart child will naturally prefer friends who are smart, but a school that only operates for gifted children is unreal and unnecessary: she's going to live in the real world. By being in a mixed environment, she will learn how to appreciate and get along with all people.
She shouldn't be bored in a regular school if she's in a reasonably small classroom and has a good teacher who will give her extra assignments at her intellectual level. This, with some special after-school activ ity -- perhaps at a museum -- should keep her interested in learning.
Nor should you push your child ahead in grade school. Children grow mentally, physically, psychologically and morally, but seldom at the same rate of speed. The child who is academically gifted will probably be even more out of sync in a class of older children. As smart as she is, your daughter will need friends who play like she does.
Most thoughtful educators also consider the early academic nursery schools unwise. Most children, gifted or not, thrive in the kind of nursery school you've chosen, particularly with such an enriched home life. You're doing a fine job, both by what you offer and what you resist.
And you can offer still more, for you are the best, most important teacher your child will ever have.
According to Judith Findlay, who runs an after-school program for gifted children in the District, it's ideas, not information, that matter. Even a very young child can be taught to think in a more profound way if you encourage your child's questions and ask some of her when you read aloud. Questions help a child understand relationships, recognize ideas, figure out cause and effect and teach her to read above a literal level.
Family interests stimulate a child, too. When everyone reads books about the same subject, like dinosaurs, the gifted child learns from many directions and many points of view. Family trips give the same intense focus. A gifted child gets an extraordinary amount out of a tour of a glassworks or a marine lab.
A parent needs to know how a child learns best so she can build on her strengths and develop the areas that are weaker. This is particularly important, since experts now find that people can improve or diminish various aspects of their intelligence.
And as your child gets older, you can help her learn by introducing her to projects that involve detail and memory work -- the core of elementary school, and for a gifted child, its greatest bore. A high IQ makes it hard for this child to see the need for work that seems irrelevant, and yet every serious profession, from acting to medicine, will require her to have an organized mind, a ready memory and the ability to pay attention and apply herself.
No matter how bright the child, she must grow up knowing that scutwork is the basis of good work.